The Lujan Zoo outside Buenos Aires in Argentina provides what it bills as a “unique interacting experience.” Visitors are able to get really, really close to the animals, by petting, feeding or riding full-grown tigers, lions and brown bears. Some of the animals roam freely while visitors are allowed into others’ cages, under a zookeepers’ guidance.
According to International Business Times, the Lujan Zoo says that the animals are fed prior to interacting with visitors “so they won’t feel hungry when a human is inside their cage” and that they are raised along with domestic dogs so they learn “boundaries.” Videos and photos posted online show visitors petting and sitting astride lions, while some other visitors watch rather warily.
Commentators on websites such as Trip Advisors note that the zoo grounds are “neglected” and “not really clean” and that the enclosures for the animals are small. Others say that zoo staff use “techniques,” including dangling meat in front of the animals or throwing water on their faces to get them to pose for photos and that the animals have “obviously” been sedated.
Claudio Nieva, the zoo’s general manager, scoffs at the criticism. In a 2009 Daily Mail article, he asserts that that Zoo Lujan is an ecological foundation (its website says it is a “fundacion ecological”) and that it takes in unwanted animals (including monkeys and birds illegally taken from the rainforest and abandoned) who would otherwise die. Nieva says that “it is not a coincidence, that anyone in all this [sic] years hasn’t been injured.” His response to concerns that the animals are sedated was that it would be impossible to sedate them “over and over because they would end up sick and finally dead.”
‘The zoo is, in my view, placing the lives of its visitors at great risk by encouraging them to have ‘close encounters’ with dangerous, potentially lethal, wild animals.
‘Anyone who has any knowledge of big cats will understand that they are wild animals and, as such, as unpredictable.’
In particular, Travers states that there’s a real danger to teaching people that petting big cats and other wild animals is all right.
The recent death of a 24-year-old intern, Dianna Hanson, at Cat Haven, a wildlife sanctuary in Dunlap, California, was already a tragic reminder that lions are predators whose instincts are to hunt and kill. Hanson was cleaning the cage of a male lion, Cous Cous, when he got out of a smaller pen and attacked her, breaking her neck. Hanson reportedly died quickly and Cous Cous, who was causing additional wounds to her body, was shot dead by a sheriff deputy.
As University of Minnesota ecologist Craig Packer says to National Geographic, lions “are big fluffy mammals with cute cubs and affectionate family relationships.” But while they are “relaxed” for much of the time, “it’s easy to forget that they react to meat with the reflexive instincts of a shark”; Packer points out that, ten years ago, Roy Horne (of Siegfried and Roy) was attacked and seriously injured by a tiger the two had trained for years.
Conservation scientist Luke Dollar explains a reason for the appeal of Zoo Lujan:
“We have this fascination [with dangerous animals such as lions] because of their potential lethality, but for some reason we still cross the line that should never be crossed. … Anthropomorphization is a dangerous thing. These are wild animals—this is not Simba from the Lion King.”
Dollar emphasizes that offering “love and respect” for lions and other wild animal is a great thing, “but it is truly folly [to think] that one can commune and be friends with them.”
Visitors to Zoo Lujan are making a decision to put themselves at risk, whatever the zoo’s confidence on its policies and its claims about its past record. Should such a zoo even be allowed to operate? Is not everyone’s safety — human visitors and staff and animal residents — being compromised?
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